If there is a visual equivalent for the expression “doesn’t mince words,” it would apply to the latest collection by Catskill photographer John P. O’Grady. Books with new Catskills photographs aren’t exactly thick on the ground, so one does well to pay attention to a collection by O’Grady, whose way with words (he wrote the texts as well) is as unique and original as his artistry with a camera.
Lush and beautiful in the summer, at least to those who (like me) travel their more familiar paths, New York’s Catskill Mountains in winter—and winters here are long—are harsh, stark, uncompromising. It’s difficult to imagine an artist who has conveyed these qualities more successfully than John P. O’Grady in his latest book, Certain Trees in the Catskill Mountains. Even the title is bare and direct. This isn’t a “feel-good” collection of pretty pictures; viewers in pursuit of the pleasant will likely find it daunting. The texts (photos and texts are printed on opposite pages) offer interesting insights and unusual takes on Catskill history and lore. For example, he points out the irony that there are no vistas on Mount Thomas Cole (Cole, the nineteenth-century landscape painter and an avid mountain climber, never scaled this peak): they are all obscured by trees. He also shares some information gleaned from a seventeenth-century alchemist: O’Grady has an interesting library and intriguing ways of shelving his books that reveal more about him than about the book itself.
The photographs are black and white and rely on strong forms for their impact: jagged, winter-bare trees, sometimes cast as shadows on an abandoned building or on ground seemingly untouched by human or even animal life. Then there are the rocks, the Catskills themselves, the ledges that may offer a breathtaking vista or threaten instant death if the careless hiker slips and falls over the edge.
Each photo is an accompaniment to rather than an illustration of the text. There are no verbal clues to the location of each image, and to recognize it solely by the visual, one must know this place very intimately indeed.
In a book measuring 9 ½ x 8 inches, each photo averages about 4 3/8 x 3 inches; there are both verticals and horizontals. Thus each image seems to challenge—or perhaps dare?—the viewer to enter its world. To do so physically is for the physically adventurous; to do so visually through O’Grady’s photographs is for those unafraid to inhabit, even if just for a time, the mysterious and magical world that these pages set before one’s eyes.
Certain Trees in the Catskill Mountains can be ordered through John O’Grady’s website, www.tuckabold.com. At $15.00 + $3.00 postage, this compelling journey into the saga-spun Catskills is a bargain.